IN THE past two decades the spectre of
chemical weapons has diminished, although not completely disappeared.
Much of the impetus for many nations ceasing production of and
destroying chemical weapons came from an agreement signed by US
president George H. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev 20 years
There is evidence that the bushmen of Africa
first used poison-tipped arrows tens of thousands of years ago,
employing chemicals from a poisonous species of frog.
In the 6th century BC Solon of Athens
poisoned the water supply of the city of Cirrha, which the Athenians had
besieged for 10 years. Solon poisoned their river with the root of the
hellebore plant, a strong purgative. The Cirrhans became so weakened by
diarrhoea, the Athenians were able to storm the city.
In 423BC the Spartans hurled canisters of
burning sulphur over the walls of an Athenian fort and burned coal,
sulphur and pitch in fires around the fort to inundate the defenders
with choking fumes.
The ancient Chinese were also known to use
toxic smoke as early as about 400BC, again to smoke the enemy out of
tunnels being dug under besieged cities. They penetrated the tunnels
with terracotta pipes and pumped in noxious smoke produced by any number
of combinations of burning chemicals.
Various armies experimented with some nasty
chemical weapons in medieval times and even the great Renaissance
thinker Leonardo da Vinci proposed using sulphide of arsenic and
verdigris, the green patina that forms on copper when it is exposed to
air. Some armies continued trying to use chemicals on their enemies but
it had the danger of rebounding on the army using the chemicals if the
wind blew the wrong way, or if they had poisoned the local food and
water so that it couldn't be used by either side. Because of the ability
of these weapons to go wrong and because they often relied on stealth,
some commanders thought of them as underhanded and beneath their
In 1854, in the Crimean War, proposals by
British chemist Lyon Playfair to shell enemy ships with exploding
cannisters that would spread cyanide gas were dismissed as being as
devious as poisoning a well.
But it was in the 20th century when chemicals
became capable of mass destruction and became a feared part of the
military arsenal. Advances in the isolation of chemicals and gases, and
the production of large quantities of toxic substances, made it possible
to create weapons capable of affecting thousands of soldiers, which
could be delivered from a safe distance.
In World War I the Germans were first to use
gas, poisoning enemy soldiers with a range of substances including
chlorine, phosgene and a kind of sulphurous substance known as mustard
The Germans used the gas in violation of the
Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 banning the use of poisonous gases in
war. After World War I there were more attempts to come to some
international agreement banning chemical weapons, such as the 1925
But before, during and after World War II
many nations experimented with, stockpiled and occasionally still used
chemical weapons. Those stockpiles grew during the Cold War. Many
countries, including Australia, took the lead of the US and the Soviet
Union, stockpiling poisonous arsenals, although most were afraid to use
them for fear of international condemnation. The Americans have been
condemned for their use of herbicides in Vietnam. Iraq was condemned for
using gas in its war with Iran and against the rebel Kurds within Iraq
in the 1980s.
When the Soviet Union began to crumble,
chemical weapons came up for negotiation. In the White House on June 1,
1990, Gorbachev and Bush signed the treaty agreeing to stop making
chemical weapons and to destroy 80 per cent of US and Soviet stockpiles.
Credit: Troy Lennon